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Please Remember: Meltdowns and Tantrums Are Not the Same

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I am noticing a shift in parenting towards a more gentle, attached style rather than the traditional authoritarian style I grew up with. It’s wonderful to see parents and professionals using and recommending greater empathy and connection, and understanding the ways children are behaving as representing their internal feelings and motivations. Instead of treating behavior as negative, parents are beginning to question the deeper need of their child — and this is definitely a positive change.

However, as a mother of two autistic children who I describe as neurodiverse (ND), it’s difficult to hear friends, family or professionals discussing a neurotypical (NT) child’s behavior as a “meltdown” or using other terminology like “after school restraint collapse.” While I have no doubt for that family those behaviors do feel and look like they match the terms, where does this leave families who experience autistic behaviors that are definitely not present in neurotypical children?

There is a distinct difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. But many families of neurotypical children will attest to the tantrum being epic or so challenging that only the term “meltdown” can suffice. So when presenting my child’s challenges to professionals such as doctors, educators or allied health, how can I, the parent of neurodiverse children, explain the difficulties we are facing and get the right help? If the terminology continues to be borrowed by neurotypical families, will it water down the original meaning?

A meltdown is a complete loss of control leading to completely disengaging with the world. There is no way to communicate and keeping the person safe is the only priority. My children have tantrums and I definitely know the difference. However, their tantrums are not severe because I tend to parent empathetically, gently and try to avoid situations that would lead to a tantrum. Of course, that’s not always possible.

I understand parents feel their neurotypical child is capable of completely losing control, but then how do I adequately describe our challenge? There isn’t an easy answer. I feel it pushes neurodiverse families to choose to either say nothing or describe the issues in more negative and dire ways. I hope sharing this story highlights the need to be careful in choosing the way we describe our lives and our children.

Getty image by Rawpixel.

Originally published: September 1, 2019
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